Surgical Oncologist Quan P. Ly, MD, FACS, Flees From Vietnam and Finds a Home at the University of Nebraska

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After the Vietnam War, close to a million refugees, known as “boat people,” fled Vietnam, hazarding the open ocean on dangerously overloaded vessels. The term “boat people” is often used generically to refer to all the Vietnamese (about 2 million) who left their country by any means between 1975 and 1995.

Quan P. Ly, MD, FACS

Quan P. Ly, MD, FACS

Among the millions of desperate people fleeing Vietnam were future engineers, doctors, and other professionals who eventually landed on the shores of America, making a good life for themselves and adding value to the nation’s economic and social cultures. One such “boat person” was Quan P. Ly, MD, FACS, now Associate Professor, Division of Surgical Oncology, Department of Surgery, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha.

“My childhood is a little more colorful than most people, certainly most oncologists. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam, now called Ho Chi Minh City. My dad died toward the end of the Vietnam war at the age of 35, when I was 3 years old. My mom, who had a fifth-grade education, single-handedly reared me and my two siblings,” shared Dr. Ly.

There were three phases of Vietnamese refugees during that post-war period. The first wave was the 1975 group, which escaped during the immediate fall of South Vietnam, when the North Vietnamese overwhelmed Saigon. Dr. Ly explained that many of the children in this first wave were assimilated into the U.S. culture, losing many of their ties, language first, with their homeland. “They assimilated fairly rapidly, but they had their own set of hardships,” Dr. Ly admitted.

Escape From Vietnam

She and her family were part of the second wave of boat refugees, which left between 1978 and 1981. “At that time, it was illegal to leave Vietnam. It was a very strange time, so you did what you had to do. We bought seats on a boat, which was a challenge in itself. The trip organizers oversold or resold the seats many times over. My family had lost our seats several times before the last trip,” stated Dr. Ly.

She described the journey from Vietnam to Malaysia, a perilous voyage on the high seas, during which scores of small, overloaded fishing boats were lost in storms. Marauding pirates attacked many of the boats carrying refugees, beating men and raping women as they pillaged the vessels.

“Our boat was jam-packed with 508 refugees. Remember, these were fishing boats that were not properly equipped for the ocean. When we left in May 1979, we were on the open ocean for 3 days before arriving in Malaysia. On the way, pirates stopped us two times. We were robbed but considered ourselves lucky that nobody was killed or raped.”

At Nebraska, I felt I could serve as the bridge between research and the patient. So far, I think I’ve accomplished that goal.
— Quan P. Ly, MD, FACS

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Dr. Ly had an uncle and aunt who were already settled in the United States, which made her family’s emigration transition easier. After spending 6 months in Malaysia, Dr. Ly, her mother, and siblings were shipped to the United States, arriving in December 1979.

“We landed in San Francisco. My uncle, who was my mother’s younger brother, met us, and that is where I spent the younger years of my life. When we arrived, none of us spoke a word of English. We had to learn our ABCs, and I spent a lot of time in front of the TV, watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” admitted Dr. Ly. She added: “We really wanted to learn how to speak without an accent.”

A Mother’s Dream

As new arrivals, they did whatever they could to assimilate into their new country. Asked who was her greatest influence, without hesitation Dr. Ly said, “My mom. She lost her husband early and didn’t even have a high school education. She was stuck in that period during which even her own mother didn’t believe girls should have an education. She quit school in fifth grade to care for her siblings. Despite her hardships and challenges, my mother made a vow that all her children would get a good education, no matter what she had to do to make that a reality.”

Dr. Ly said she decided on a career in medicine because it was her mother’s dream to have one of her children become a doctor. Her older brother and sister went into computer science, which was the hot career choice at the time, offering a quicker path to a good job than medicine.

“So I became the last chance to fulfill my mother’s dream. I liked science so figured I’d give medicine a shot. After graduating from the University of California at Davis, California, in 1988, I was accepted at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The culture shock of moving from Davis, California, to the Bronx, New York, might have been more difficult than emigrating from Vietnam to the United States,” acknowledged Dr. Ly. “Ironically, my sister left the computer field and joined me at Albert Einstein 2 years later. So my mother got two doctors.”

A Career in Surgical Oncology

In 1996, Dr. Ly began an internship and general surgical residency at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann University Hospitals. At the Medical College of Pennsylvania, she gathered invaluable experience, doing postdoctoral work from 1998 to 2000. Dr. Ly assumed the role of Chief Resident, serving from 2002 to 2003.

Asked why she chose surgery, Dr. Ly explained she liked the almost-instant gratification of fixing a clinical problem with her hands. She then did a surgical oncology fellowship at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, where her career in surgical oncology took shape.

After her fellowship, Dr. Ly began her job search, realizing she wanted to stay in academic medicine because she loved research and teaching residents. She felt her efforts had true value in helping the next generation of physicians move forward.

At Home in Nebraska

“The University of Nebraska Medical Center offered an opportunity to focus on surgical oncology and participate in research. At Nebraska, I felt I could serve as the bridge between research and the patient. So far, I think I’ve accomplished that goal,” shared Dr. Ly.

She continued: “I’m fond of the oncology patient population. My cancer patients are the nicest group of people you’ll ever encounter. When I first sit down with patients, I ask them what they know about their clinical issue. Many patients don’t even fully understand their diagnosis. I take time educating them on the type of cancer they have and how we’re going to treat it.”

Her current research interests include studying the role of survivin in the development of novel therapies for pancreatic cancers. She also is interested in exploring methods of improving health literacy for her cancer patients.

Asked about her life in the sprawling state of Nebraska, Dr. Ly said: “I love it here. I find Nebraskans to be some of the nicest people in the world. Most important, I am devoted to my cancer patients, passionate about teaching, and truly enjoy the collaborative atmosphere here.”

When Dr. Ly returns home after a long and challenging day at the university, her Beagle-mix mutt, Penny, greets her. “I think she’s the smartest dog in the world. We spend a lot of time together,” she said. ■

Disclosure: Dr. Ly reported no potential conflicts of interest.